Ephraim Sykes (l) and the ensemble of ‘Black No More.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Black No More, the New Group’s theatrically vigorous, satirically provocative, but borderline simplistic new musical at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is advertised as an example of Afrofuturism. No sooner did I look this up than it was cemented into my consciousness by a Times obituary for singer Betty Davis, known for her “Afrofuturist style.” Briefly, what this means in Black No More is that it mixes African American themes in a futuristic, sci-fi framework; a similar term, Africanfuturism, relates exclusively to African themes. See Black Panther.
The principal theme stems from the creation by self-aggrandizing Black scientist Dr. Junius Crookman (super-talented lyricist Tariq Trotter [a.k.a. Black Thought, of the Roots] who also collaborated on the music), of a way to turn Black people white. He does this by inducing the condition of vitiligo, which can “turn a Negro completely white.” (Across town, the eponymous lead in MJ reveals he, too, had vitiligo.) Crookman declares that his goal, apart from getting rich, is to solve the racial divide.
Based on a 1931 novel of the same title by George S. Schuyler, Black No More, which Covid delayed from its planned 2020 opening, moves from the Harlem Renaissance to the deepest South. The central character, a Black Harlemite named Max Disher (Brandon Victor Dixon, Hamilton, a perfect fit), is unhappy with the racism he encounters at home; he is also turned on by Helen Givens (Jennifer Damiano, Next to Normal, wonderful), a white woman he meets at the Savoy Ballroom. He, therefore, decides to let Dr. Crookman turn him white. (We only imagine the transformation, which transpires in a barber chair). Max Disher becomes Matthew Fisher and moves to Atlanta.
He soon finds himself among cartoonishly racist Georgians, saying the kind of outrageous things that, for all their nasty exaggeration, must make the actors gag. Max allows himself to join their ranks, even being chosen by Reverend Givens (Howard McGillin, Phantom of the Opera, nailing the redneck shtick), head of the Knights of Nordica (think KKK), to be their Grand Exalted Giraw. The show’s fourth-wall-breaking aesthetic lets us see his comically ironic bewilderment at finding himself in this predicament.
Following the formulaic script, Max marries the reverend’s beautiful, blonde, progressive-minded daughter, Helen (coincidentally, the white woman he met in Harlem). It’s not long before Helen is pregnant (leading to a tiny bit of suspense regarding the child’s ultimate color). But he must contend with Helen’s bigoted brother, Ashby (Theo Stockman, This Ain’t No Disco), a white supremacist unaware of Max’s background (although he has his suspicions).
When Harlem’s Black population gets perilously thin, Max’s northern friends, Agamemnon (Ephraim Sykes, Ain’t Too Proud, first-rate), and, especially, the no-nonsense Buni (Tamika Lawrence, Caroline, Or Change, outstanding), try to interfere. Circumstances will have it otherwise.
Handling a huge cast for an Off-Broadway show of nearly 30, director Scott Elliott does a bang-up job of creating a fast-moving freight train of expressive, if not markedly memorable, numbers, ranging across a spectrum of African American musical genres, blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, reggae, soul, and rap. Trotter shares the composing honors with Anthony Tidd, James Poyser, and Daryl Waters.
Choreographer Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening) does great things with the dance ensemble, especially the Harlem scenes, which suggest a sexy decadence reminiscent of Weimar Berlin. Even the dialogue, crafted by book writer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), is juiced-up, with rhymed patter that keeps the beat alive.
Jeff Croiter’s sensational lighting, including strobes and illuminated, narrow strips between the floor planks, and Qween Jean’s on-point period costumes supplement Derek McLane’s spare setting of brick walls and tall, movable, metal archways. There are also huge letters slid on by the actors, as needed, to spell out HARLEM and NORDICA. But these visuals, and a perfect ensemble of potent singers and dancers, can’t erase the feeling that you’re watching an agitprop-like, semi-allegory (I kept thinking of The Cradle Will Rock) intended to reinforce your already-held beliefs. In other words—as that other guy with vitiligo would have it—“It don’t matter if you’re black or white.” Or, as Max insists, we must “stop fucking hating.”
Broader than broad and with a fable requiring continual suspension of disbelief, Black No More impedes its drive with more numbers than it needs. There’s some tear-down-the-house belting by the glorious Lillias White (The Life), for example, who plays Madame Sisserata, owner of a hair straightening salon. But, we well may ask, do her powerful vocals really advance the story, or are they simply frosting on the cake?
Sociologically, Black No More matters. Artistically, though, at two and a half hours, it would be well-advised if 30 minutes of it were no more.
Black No More
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through February 27
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).